by Bill and Mary Weaver

Although Mark Timm is a fifth-generation farmer on his family’s farm in Altura, MN, he is a first-generation vegetable grower. He and his wife Laurie are skilled growers and astute marketers. Starting in early February by seeding vegetable plants — including bell peppers, kale and head lettuce in the smallest of their three greenhouses — the Timms grow a consistent quality of a wide variety of fresh vegetables. They sell at three famers markets and to eight-10 restaurant chefs from late spring through freeze-up. By freeze-up they have plenty of winter storage vegetables to supply large quantities to two winter farmers markets and the chefs well into March.

Now that spring has arrived, Laurie said, “I’m having my spring tropical vacation in the greenhouse. Yesterday, I was potting up pansies and dahlias.” Some of their head lettuce and kale have been transplanted into the ground in their biggest greenhouse to harvest for the last winter farmers markets and the first main-season ones, which start in May. “We also sell some of the plants to our gardening customers at our farmers markets.”

The vegetables are delivered through a food network that was started about 12 years ago by a farmer who wanted to take more than a partial truckload of his meat when he traveled to city restaurants. Timm is one of three produce farmers now in this network. Chefs order from a list of what Mark currently has available. The winter sales keep both Mark and Laurie busy through the winter and keep the income coming and they believe the business would be expandable if they had more steady help.

“In addition to about 10,000 pounds of specialty potatoes, we stored 3,000 pounds of Rainbow and Bolero carrots, and we’re starting to run low. I picked up sales of an extra hundred pounds of carrots a week at one of our restaurants this winter. We sell a consistent 120 pounds of carrots at each winter farmers market,” said Mark.

The Timms also store a variety of beets for winter sales: Red beets [Red Ace and Red Cloud for storage]; golden beets, and even white beets. “The white beets don’t sell as well at the farmers markets. But a restaurant latched onto our white beets and bought us out. Some restaurants are making beet juice tonics with our beets. Fortunately, we had stored an extra pallet of beets last fall,” commented Mark.

Their supply of storage cabbage, sold about half to the winter farmers market and half to their chefs, was getting low in early February. “We usually have storage cabbage until the end of April, but our crop didn’t head up well last year.”

The real stars of the Timm’s winter marketing, though, are their specialty varieties of potatoes. “We stored about 10,000 pounds of about 20 different varieties. We start digging new potatoes in July, at golf ball size. They’re in demand then and sell for very good prices.” Varieties include German Butterball, Purple Viking, Yukon Gold, Yukon Gem, Anushka, Pinto Gold, All Blue, several red-skinned varieties and Kennebec for an area french-fry maker, among others.

By early February, the Timms were sold down to Yukon Golds, their best sellers in winter, the Pinto Gold fingerlings, some reds and part of a crate of All Blues. Both the chefs and the winter farmers market customers prize the excellent flavor of the Timm’s specialty potato varieties. “If the cold weather holds, we can store potatoes in our reefer trailer until the beginning of April. But in a warm spring, since we don’t spray to prevent sprouting, we’ll need to sell out more quickly.”

Mark plans to more than double last year’s 50-pound planting of the fingerling Pinto Gold this season. “They’ve been flying out the door,” he explained. “Pinto Gold is a large, pretty fingerling with striking splashes of pink on a skin so smooth and shiny, it almost glows. The yellow flesh is so smooth and creamy, it is almost decadent.”

His ‘new’ potato variety for the coming season “is not actually new to us, but I haven’t been able to find seed for it for the last few years. Colorado Rose is a very pretty red-skinned potato with white flesh. It has a smooth, floury texture that makes it an exceptional masher. It stores well and is resistant to hollow heart and second growth, both problems for us occasionally.”

But new crop vegetables are not far away. Last year at the last winter farmers market, the Timms were selling their own lettuce and spinach, grown in the soil in their largest greenhouse.

By May, the two smaller greenhouses are bursting with hanging baskets, flowers and bedding plants. “We sell a lot of flowers and baskets at our Plainview Farmers Market,” noted Mark. “The grocery store there likes our quality. They run a special on them the last two weeks before Mother’s Day.”

Their first asparagus will be ready for sale in early May and “we always sell out, between the markets and the restaurants.”

Although it takes a lot of detailed planning, careful timing and hard work, it is possible to grow, store and sell vegetables year-round in southern Minnesota. Last fall, a hard freeze came very early to the area. Although the work was quite hectic just before the freeze, the Timms had everything harvested and in storage when the freeze hit. “I farmed all my life. I’ve learned if I have a window of opportunity, I’d better be working on getting product out. With the semi reefer in place and two coolers, there was space to begin harvesting in early October. We got all the carrots and the beets out then. It was almost too wet, just before the very hard freeze, to harvest the last of the potatoes and the parsnips, but we got everything out in time, including all the headed cauliflower, broccoli and Brussels sprouts,” said Mark.

The Timms accomplish all this with a minimum of specialized machinery, some of it improvised: A spray/brush washer; a 2-row transplanter; a potato planter and digger; a hiller; an improvised carrot and parsnip lifter; and new this year, a vacuum seeder, that will make easy work of planting all their seeds, including cucurbits, with seed spacings that vary widely and are quickly changed. “I’m a basic farmer,” commented Mark, “but we still get the work done.”

The Timms are looking to slow down and cut back a bit. “I’m 57,” said Mark. “Last year I rented our corn, soy bean and alfalfa ground to my young cousin. I like to help someone else get into farming, and this also cuts my workload.”

“We will be planting some currants and juneberries this year,” noted Laurie. “There is a demand for these and I can utilize them in my jams. We’re hoping to put in other perennial plantings to slow the annual spring planting rush.” Other perennials already in place include table grapes, apple and pear trees.

But slowing down a bit does not imply retiring for the Timms. Both Mark and Laurie plan to continue to spend their time, year-round, doing the work they love.